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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Symphony No. 1 in D major, D 82 (1813) [24:32]
Symphony No. 2 in B flat major, D 125 (1814/15) [27:37]
Symphony No. 3 in D major, D 200 (1815) [24:39]
Symphony No. 4 in C minor, D 417 Tragische/Tragic (1816) [30:06]
Symphony No. 5 in B flat major, D 485 (1816) [27:37]
Symphony No. 6 in C major, D 589 (1817/18) [33:18]
Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D 759 Unvollendete/Unfinished (1822) [26:37]
Symphony No. 9 in C major, D 944 Große/Great (1825/26) [56:39]
Chamber Orchestra of Europe/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
rec. live, 1988, Styriarte Festival, Graz, Austria
ICA CLASSICS ICAC5160 [4 CDs: 252:12]

Nikolaus Harnoncourt (1929-2016) was an old hand when it came to the Schubert Symphonies. We’re now fortunate to have three cycles in the catalogue. The first dates from the early nineties with the Royal Concertgebouw orchestra (review), followed by a traversal with the Berlin Philharmonic (live, 2003-06 - review). This newly released cycle predates both, being recorded live at the Styriarte Festival in Graz, Austria, between 3-10 July 1988. They’re analogue recordings taped by Austrian Radio. The conductor’s fondness for the composer’s music are echoed in his own words: “Music, with Schubert at its heart, is my daily bread. Schubert has been my constant companion. For me, he was the personification of music.”

These performances are how I like my Schubert Symphonies, with lively tempi, an ear for inner detail and clear articulation. Harnoncourt’s no nonsense approach works well. Bold risks pay off, and he’s always alert to dynamic variance. The early symphonies are splendid. No. 1 opens majestically before the Allegro vivace takes off. It’s lithe and buoyant, and the woodwinds, especially, are well profiled and pointed up. The Andante is imbued with a bucolic charm. Two years later when he was eighteen, he penned the Second Symphony. With a nod to his predecessor, the initial theme of the Allegro vivace corresponds to the first theme of Beethoven's overture to The Creatures of Prometheus. It’s a marvelously accomplished work. The Andante has a perfect Schubertian theme, and Harnoncourt savours its beguiling lyricism. The uplifting finale adds a touch of Haydnesque wit. The Third Symphony has a wonderful sense of proportion, and tempi feel just right. In the opening movement I love the conversational interplay between strings and woodwinds, and am won over by the Allegretto which is sprightly and light on its feet.

Housed on CD 2 are my two favorites, Symphonies 4 and 5. No. 4 in C minor bears the title ‘Tragic’ and is the only one of the symphonies in a minor key. There’s an uneasy and palpable urgency in the opening movement. The Andante con moto alternates wistful resignation and moments charged with emotional intensity. The mood lightens in the finale, which has a mercurial effervescence. The Fifth Symphony is a pure delight, both refreshing and liberating. Harnoncourt emphasizes its pastoral qualities, especially in the lyrical Andante con moto, which overflows with genteel grace. The effect is spellbinding. The finale is kept lissome and carefree. Some refer to the Sixth Symphony as the ‘Little C Major’. I find it the weakest of the symphonies. Indeed Schubert scholar John Reed comments that the Symphony “is not entirely successful”. The first movement is bolstered by some characterful woodwinds. The Scherzo is blithe and breezy,  and the fourth movement never lacks affection. I do think, however, that Sir Thomas Beecham’s 1955 account has a tad more magic.

The first movement of Harnoncourt’s ‘Unfinished’ is potently dramatic, darkly brooding and instilled with a gripping tension, which allows for maximum impact. There’s a natural flow to the slow movement, and I must single out for praise the glorious woodwind playing. Harnoncourt’s deep affection for the music certainly shines through. The Ninth Symphony is an impressive account, and the first movement, the longest symphonic movement the composer ever penned, is nicely paced, fluent and resolute. The Andante is a true con moto, and moves along briskly. It works very well. Sharp accented chords make forceful impact. The Scherzo has vim and vigour, with articulation crisp and incisive. In the finale, Harnoncourt takes firm control in maintaining tension and intensity. It moves at pace and the listener is carried along by an impelling forward momentum. It doesn’t get much better than this, and I’ve yet to hear a finer version of this Symphony.

Harnoncourt's take on these symphonies is nothing short of intoxicating, and the infectious enthusiasm he draws from the COE players is palpable. The COE play with assured conviction throughout and fully buy into Harnoncourt's vision.  He captures the magical essence of each of these generously lyrical works, observing most repeats. The sound is warm and the acoustic sympathetic. Although interpretively and tempo-wise very similar, I find the sound quality more immediate and palpable than in the earlier Concertgebouw cycle. Applause is retained. All told, this cycle gets my full-hearted recommendation.

Stephen Greenbank



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